The Golden House
(Random House, 2017)
I’m a critic who likes to look at books in pairs. One text can illuminate another, and when I got the Salman Rushdie assignment, I thought I’d try. Given the man’s remarkable history and high profile, suppose I could find another fiction, less in-the-news but somehow similar? I had one possibility, too: Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses , likewise wrestling with identity in an exotic underworld. But no. The Golden House won’t allow anyone right next door. If Thomas Pynchon had just gotten off one of his wilder whoops, if a fresh screaming had come across the sky, that might’ve worked. But among recent novels, Rushdie’s stands clear. Its rarified atmosphere and transoceanic sprawl can make for a trying combination—the Washington Post has panned the book—but myself, I loved the effect, as the story kept risking a far reach and achieving a firm grasp. For hours on end, I wanted no other company.
The most notable risk is the cutting-edge contemporaneity. The denouement of Golden House unfolds pretty much at the moment we read it, in later 2017, and its tragic climax the previous fall has a lot to do with the tragedy of the last election. Donald Trump wears another name, but this seems an unnecessary fillip, since there can be no mistaking the stand-in: “it was the year of the Joker in Gotham... clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and... the right person to hold the nuclear codes... the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouthed giggler.” Such savage colors are new for this author. Rushdie’s big canvases have always included attacks on the corrupt and powerful, but he’s never worked quite like this, a graffiti artist. Significantly, too, his enraged scribbles have a counterpoint in “grey reality,” namely “the city of New York.” Manhattan, in particular, provides the primary setting, up-to-the-minute Manhattan, quintessentially cutting-edge. There, as the Presidential campaign grows more cartoonish, “a kind of reality still persevered, and New Yorkers could identify a con man when they saw one.”
Reality: the word also featured in Rushdie’s recent interview with Porochista Khakpour, in Poets & Writers. To them Golden House reasserted a basic tenet of the social novel, its grounding in the day-today. The story lacks the fabulist figures of the earlier work, making war in Satanic Verses (1988) and love in Shalimar the Clown (2005, and my favorite, for how it recalls Rushdie’s old hero Italo Calvino). What we have here, rather, could be termed an immigrant novel of New York. But then, Henry Roth’s old warhorse Call It Sleep was nothing if not a weepie, and Golden House is in many respects a playpen.
The novel toys recurrently, for instance, with the word “trump,” both the verb and the noun. For my money the trick never fails, and neither does the juggling of formal and informal, so that “Surely such a fellow would not bruit himself abroad...?” morphs into the same fellow “establishing, as they say nowadays, his brand.” Bruit/brand bi-play, what could be tastier? Flavored, what’s more, with either mythic reference—here the Metamorphoses , there the Mahabharata —or samplings from high culture (Calvino, check) and low (speaking of Jewish immigrants, how about the Marx Brothers?). The prose gambols about so wildly, it harkens back to Nabokov’s Ada , another work that overwhelmed some readers. Yet through it all, Golden House never loses hold of its defining drama, entirely down to earth: that of an immigrant family seeking solid American footing. It tosses in as many mentions of Vito Corleone as of the word “trump.”
The Golden House paterfamilias arrives in Manhattan, like his author, from Mumbai. A man with deep pockets, clearly an old hand at financial shenanigans, he snaps up a place in Greenwich Village. Still, in classic fashion, he jettisons the Old-Country name. He prefers Nero Golden, and awards Greco- Roman appellations to his three grown sons as well; by Caesarian rebirth (Mr. Rushdie, two can play at this game), they all become “frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans.” As for the lissome former gymnast half a century Nero’s junior, the woman who takes his deal, “my money for your beauty,” and so sends the first serious cracks through this Golden House —she’s out of Siberia and shares the old man’s distaste for the past: “Poverty is a disgusting condition and to fail to emerge from it is also disgusting.”
These characters don’t merely emerge, however; they spread wings the color of money. In the way its players “follow the golden standard,” often snug in “a colossal sense of entitlement,” the novel seems to have less in common with an immigrant saga than with the wealth-besotted Great Gatsby. The protagonist’s shirts, in Rushdie as in Fitzgerald, get special attention. More than that, the Goldens own one of the brownstones around the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens, among the most exclusive real estate in Manhattan. These days, those linked backyards harbor hothouse flowers—and that goes too for the narrator René. A twenty-something raised in the Gardens, he’s actually first-generation American; his Belgian parents had lucky timing. René is just the sort of New Yorker to whom Trump is a horror show, but he’s smart enough to see how he and the others “cocooned in liberal downtown silk” share many of the Joker’s values. René too seeks the Big Time. A fledgling filmmaker, he’s not above name-dropping: James Franco, check. And now just across the Gardens, he’s got the Goldens, lending a dark glitter to this new Gilded Age. Shedding light on that darkness could provide the young man with a breakout feature, and so this is a novel, as they’d say in Studio City, in development. René has to redraw his storyboards with each new discovery concerning father, sons, and their far-from-holy ghosts.
Many of those discoveries prove no less than sensational, and many chime beautifully with some recurring character tic, or with some detail left dangling, an eye-catching bauble, twenty-five or a hundred pages beforehand. A late digression into the Mumbai mafia, touching on both Bollywood and radical Islam, tested my patience somewhat. By and large, however, the story command never flagged, thanks to its grounding in the human moil, and finally this matters more than all the novel’s smart-mouthed gab, or the dirt it dishes on the One Percent. A couple of the climaxes—the tragedy of a Golden child’s self-destruction and the triumph of another son’s self-assertion—rank among the most poignant reading experiences I’ve had in years. The latter scene, a damaged man’s long walk to wholeness, also demonstrates the power that lurks in the pop references; Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” has rarely enjoyed such a touching performance. Passages like that bring home how personal this material must be for Rushdie, who knows what it’s like to change homes under an alias, and then to live cocooned in downtown silk—and to go on seeking, amid the stroking and the bling, the authentic and the good. His dedication for Golden House is to his fellow emigrant New York artist, Francesco Clemente, who he thanks for showing him the Gardens.